Friday, October 15, 2010

trudging along the road, advancing upon the estate

We're packing for the move to the US, and I've been reading some of my unread books to find out if I should keep them or get rid of them. I was going through Theodore Roszak's The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein when, near the end, I came across this sentence: "Today, reading the Countess de Genlis, I look up from the page to see a lone figure trudging along the road, advancing upon the estate."

Then (as it has before) my mind jumped to another sentence in another book, one from Titus Groan, a sentence about a man on a horse riding away from the castle in the distance. The reader never knows the name of this man and we never hear about him again. He exists for that one sentence, and then he is gone. A number of items like this are dotted throughout the book, tiny moments of acute detail that have the effect of drawing my attention aside from the plot and concentrating it briefly before letting it go. I find this calming, stilling; it throws the events of the plot into a certain perspective -- "Look," it says, "while you're paying so much attention to those people, another story, just as interesting, is happening in this other direction. You will never see it, but it is there."

"It is difficult, in post-war English writing, to get away with big rhetorical gestures," wrote Anthony Burgess about Titus Groan, "Peake manages it because, with him, grandiloquence never means diffuseness; there is no musical emptiness in the most romantic of his descriptions." I believe these moments of drawing-aside serve a purpose there too, cooling the blood, not distancing the reader, but telling them, "The world of this book is large, and you are small in it." Not pulling you away, then, but working to embed you.

The similarity between the two sentences was this: in both instances I saw the figure clearly in my mind, then a patch of landscape around the figure, as if the figure itself had brought that landscape into existence. The area of illumination was roughly circular or oval, and around the edges it faded into a black fog that surrounded it to the edges of my vision. I could see that ink-coloured darkness as clearly as I saw the figure in the landscape. My eyes were fixed on this small space. As I saw the man in Elizabeth Frankenstein, I thought, "A point of simplicity." Why simplicity? I decided that it must be thanks to a post I read at the Wuthering Expectations blog a short while ago -- the last of a series of posts on the subject of beauty. I read this: "I now see my problem: I want “beauty” to be both simpler and more complex than it is." Simplicity, I thought, and concentrating on a small area.

Then I remembered something else. In the opening of an essay about a journey to Moscow he undertook in the mid-1920s, Walter Benjamin wrote --

But, equally, this is why the visit [to Moscow] is so exact a touchstone for foreigners. It obliges everyone to choose his standpoint. Admittedly, the only real guarantee of a correct understanding is to have chosen your position before you came. In Russia above all, you can only see if you have already decided ... the question at issue is not which reality is better or which has greater potential. It is only: Which reality is inwardly convergent with truth? ... Only he who clearly answers these questions is "objective." ... But someone who wishes to decide "on the basis of facts" will find no basis in the facts.

"I wonder if beauty is like this Moscow of his," I thought, "and you can "only see" after you've chosen your standpoint, or after you've charmed yourself (in an existentialist way) with an idea of yourself as a thing, a solid, fixed, and impossible object -- a person who is certain." Ruskin (discussed in Wuthering Expectations' posts) had his standpoint: his beauty was a theological beauty, its existence was evidence of the divine, and from there he could discuss a beautiful painting as if it were not only attractive, but also morally good. Theological critical theory led him (Wuthering shows us with a diagram) to compare natural curves: here is a leaf, here is a glacier, here are their curves, God's work! The characteristic tone of Ruskin's writing is that of certainty. One thing is noble, another is wicked, a third had a chance to be noble but it took a wrong turn. "Thus treated, drapery is indeed noble; but it is as an exponent of other and higher things. As that of gravitation, it has especial majesty, being literally the only means we have of fully representing this mysterious natural force of earth ... But drapery trusted to its own merits and given for its own sake ... is always base," he writes in The Seven Lamps of Architecture.

Losing his faith in the late 1850s he judged himself afterwards "stunned — palsied — utterly helpless —" By 1869 he was trying to find simplicity in his new state. "That I am no more immortal than a gnat, or a bell of heath, all nature, as far as I can read it, teaches me, and on that conviction I have henceforward to lead my gnat's or heath's life."

Ruskin discovered Beauty one July evening as he was lying next to a fountain. A storm struck, and from his prone position he saw a gathering of pyramids standing still.

Suddenly, there came in the direction of Dome du Goûter a crash — of prolonged thunder; and when I looked up, I saw the cloud cloven, as it were by the avalanche itself, whose white stream came bounding down the eastern slope of the mountain, like slow lightning. The vapour parted before its fall, pierced by the whirlwind of its motion; the gap widened, the dark shade melted away on either side; and, like a risen spirit casting off its garment of corruption, and flushed with eternity of life, the Aiguilles of the south broke through the black foam of the storm clouds. One by one, pyramid above pyramid, the mighty range of its companions shot off their shrouds, and took to themselves their glory — all fire — no shade — no dimness. Spire of ice — dome of snow — wedge of rock — all fire in the light of the sunset, sank into the hollows of the crags — and pierced through the prisms of the glaciers, and dwelt within them — as it does in clouds. The ponderous storm writhed and moaned beneath them, the forests wailed and waved in the evening wind, the steep river flashed and leaped along the valley; but the mighty pyramids stood calmly — in the very heart of the high heaven — a celestial city with walls of amethyst and gates of gold — filled with the light and clothed with the Peace of God. And then I learned — what till then I had not known — the real meaning of the word Beautiful.

So it goes in Titus Groan and Gormenghast too, the massive edifice of Gormenghast Castle is always there, solidly, through every kind of weather, floods and snow, "the mighty pyramids stood calmly," a static constant behind the moving figure of the enigmatic man on his horse (whatever he is doing, it must relate somehow to the castle -- thinks the reader -- for everything does), and giving ballast to the various ridiculousnesses in the books; Irma Prunesquallor, for example, object of the author's mockery, decides to give herself breasts by arranging a hot water bottle in her dress -- and my thought is -- who manufactured that bottle and where did they get the rubber? But everything is excused by the existence of the Castle.

Ruskin sometimes wrote nonsense too, not intentionally, as Peake does, but, seemingly, as a consequence of his mind flying away on the wings of theocriticism. He makes his madder announcements -- that cave fish are ugly because we cannot see them and that therefore God had no reason to make them attractive, or that iron reaches a personal apotheosis when it rusts -- with the same tone of conviction that he uses when he discusses ideas that are uncontroversial. Give yourself a solid thing to stand on and you can talk about anything you like. Imaginary conversation: "Mr Ruskin, can you tell us about the interior of Mars?" "Indeed! Sir, it is not beautiful. If God had made it beautiful, He would have put it where we could see it."

I came across those Ruskin quotes in this article at the Victorian Web. The ugly cave fish appear in The Seven Lamps of Architecture and rust is mentioned in The Two Paths.


  1. Now nice that someone found my posts - not useful, that's excessive - not useless. And how fun that they're put in the service of one of my favorite books. There are some passages of Titus Groan that have this lightning-flash quality, just like you, and Ruskin, I guess, describe.

    I love that cave fish. That wild confidence of Ruskin's is what got me writing about beauty. What's the worst that can happen - I look like an idiot? Eh.

    Thanks for the pointer to Benjamin. I barely know his work and hadn't thought about him in this context.

  2. Not excessive! After I'd read your beauty-posts I started puzzling about beauty (which was not something I'd puzzled about before) and eventually I thought, "Since we can't talk about beauty without also talking about observing beauty (I mean, it's not fixed and objective, and "That thing is beautiful" is not the same kind of sentence as, "That thing is green," or "That thing is furry," although it looks as if it should be -- someone has to look at the beauty and judge it before it can be called beautiful; you don't have to judge the presence of fur), I wonder what kind of conversation we would be having about it if we had conceived the word as a verb instead of a noun? So, instead of, "That flower is beautiful," we would say, "I am beautifulling that flower," or, "That flower and myself are beautying." Would we still wonder what it is?" So, see, W. Ex. set me off.

    And I've been liking the posts about Proust and David Copperfield. I was reading, last year, Proust's narrator feeling tipsy in the railway carriage (Budding Grove) when it hit me that the tone was somehow like David being drunk for the first time and having his opinion of everything changed. Going back to that idea now and looking at it I don't think it's a feeling that can be supported by any evidence, but at the time it was very strong